And it is! And it is! UCS! New play recalls Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ dispute of 1970s

Heather Gourdie as Eddy and Janie Thomson as Aggy in Yes! And it is! UCS! PIC: Townsend Theater Productions

Outside the theater where Yes! And it is! UCS! is being staged, you’ll see a blackboard. Audiences are free to chalk up messages on the way out. The other night, someone wrote, “Power to the people!” That’s the kind of show it is.

Written by Neil Gore for Townsend Productions, it is a play with songs about the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ dispute of 1971. In the summer of that year, the workers took control of John Brown and Co’s shipyard in Clydebank. Led by charismatic shop steward Jimmy Reid, they stood up for their threatened jobs not by going on strike, but by staging a work-in.

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Although the owners had orders stretching in to the following year, they had suffered recent losses and had a short-term cashflow problem. When the government refused a £6m loan to tide them over, the company went into liquidation. Its yards at Scotstoun, Clydebank, Govan and Linthouse looked doomed.

But in a radical act of defiance, the Clydebank workforce kept production going. Their action, designed to provide the viability of the business, lasted months.

This battle over the right to work became a cause celebre for trades unionists across the country. A demonstration in Glasgow attracted 80,000 marchers. Support came from such luminaries as John Lennon and Billy Connolly, an ex-shipyard worker himself.

In February 1972, the Conservative government backed down in its refusal to invest and agreed to keep the yards open. It was one of the biggest ever political U-turns. Jobs were lost, but not nearly as many as had been planned. In the short term, at least, the work-in was a massive success.

All this is like ancient history to Janie Thomson. The 21-year-old Edinburgh actor was not even born in the same century as this milestone in working-class history. Having landed a part in the play, she has become fascinated – and politicised – by the events of 50 years ago.

“It does seem like a long time ago, but when you watch the show, it is so relevant,” she says in a Zoom call from a Doncaster guest house in the midst of an extensive UK tour that takes in Clydebank on 12 March. “When we’re performing it, it feels like it could be just today, which is quite sad.”

Thomson plays Aggy McGraw, a recent school leaver working in the office at Fairfields shipyard in Govan. There, she befriends Eddy, a young woman from the drawing department, played by Heather Gourdie in Louise Townsend’s production. Together, they are drawn into the industrial action.

“People are surprised there are not two burly men coming on stage,” she laughs. “But just over five percent of workers in the shipyards were women and they were a big part of the community and the fight for the shipyards. It’s only right their stories are told because there is very little about their contribution to it all – and you ‘ve got to dig. The men were the face of it but women were supporting families and each other, as well as working in the shipyards.”

She adds: “You can see how important it is that the two women have each other and that everyone has that sense of community. Without that, the work-in just wouldn’t have been the same thing. It wouldn’t have worked.” without everyone sticking by each other.”

She is relishing a production that, in the best working-class traditions of 7:84 and Wildcat, looks the audience in the eye and celebrates community. “You really feel like you get to know your audience,” she says. “At the start of the show and in the interval we chat to them, which is nice in small venues because you can reach everyone. It feels like the audience are really with you. People listen to you more and, especially with this when there is a lot of information, it makes it easier to understand.”

The drama is offset by a set of cello-accompanied songs, ranging from folk to rock, that provide time to reflect on the wealth of historical detail. “Music helps a lot,” says Thomson. “If I’m watching something, it helps me understand the emotion I’m supposed to be feeling. It gives it that extra oomph to help people take in the information.”

For Thomson, this encounter with a time when heavy industry was dominant and trades unions were strong is providing a valuable lesson for today. The structure of our economy, with its call centers and Uber drivers, is different, but the power imbalances remain. “It feels like such an important thing in history – and not just in Scottish history, for people in general,” she says. “I always question if a work-in would work today, if people in my generation were to do that. I don’t know if they would. The sense of community back then feels so different. Our version of the work-in is getting on social media, but getting together and fighting for something is not as big.”

The lesson she takes from half a century ago is the value of solidarity. “Doing this show has taught me the power of speaking up and the power of taking other people, getting together and doing something,” she says. “It’s taught me to not stand for any crap. You can always say something, you can always speak up, always do something, instead of sitting back and letting people take advantage of you. They knew how important they were in the shipyards and because of that, they won.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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